School & District Management

System Thwarts Teacher’s Bid To Transfer To Needy School

By Robert C. Johnston — July 11, 2001 6 min read
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It was a long shot, but James P. Otto figured he had nothing to loose by inviting the 2000 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year to join his staff.

Typically, veteran teachers want schools that are less demanding than Edwin M. Stanton School, an impoverished but improving South Philadelphia K-8 site where Mr. Otto has been the principal since 1997.

In the spring of last year, though, Faith Kline called him to say the post she held in another Philadelphia school had been cut, and she was ready for a move—to Edwin M. Stanton for the 2000-01 school year.

“Faith Kline was going to be the jewel in our crown,” Mr. Otto said recently of the dynamic, 10-year teaching veteran he met while attending a literacy workshop for teachers that she directed. “She would have put us in another realm.”

But—for reasons that are still unclear to Mr. Otto and to Ms. Kline—the transfer failed. Instead, she was assigned to a school she had not requested, in a less needy community with higher test scores.

“The biggest slap in the face is that a veteran teacher has put in a valid transfer, and I ended up with a stack of teachers with no experience in teaching,” said Mr. Otto, who has been a principal for 18 years. “And someone along the line thinks this is how it ought to be.”

Pairing top teachers with the neediest students is one of most urgent challenges facing schools nationally, as well as in Philadelphia. Ms. Kline’s desire to work in the struggling school runs counter to the more typical pattern of veteran teachers choosing to work in more desirable schools.

“As teachers get more experience, they try to transfer to schools where it’s not as difficult to teach,” noted Patte Barth, a senior associate at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization that promotes higher academic standards for poor children.

Ms. Kline’s request to transfer to Stanton “signals the kind of cachet there should be around teaching in the most difficult schools,” Ms. Barth said.

Glitch Cited

Personnel officials for the Philadelphia district were unavailable for comment on Ms. Kline’s request. But speaking on their behalf, Milton McGriff, a school district spokesman, said that the system had worked, at least technically, the way it is supposed to.

Jerry J. Jordan, the vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, agreed, saying that the rules, regulations, and stipulations of the teacher contract then in place were apparently followed to the letter.

Both men also said that if Ms. Kline had just filled out her paperwork a little bit differently, the transfer, in all likelihood, would have gone through.

But the official explanation on the part of the 215,000-student district and the union rings hollow to Ms. Kline, 46.

“It says volumes about huge, bureaucratic districts and their commitment to children,” she said last month. “If it’s my fault that I didn’t get to one of their schools that’s the most needy, then what was their role and what was the purpose of that group [the district personnel office]?”

No Flexibility?

Recent data from a Philadelphia schools study found that, unlike the transfer Ms. Kline sought last year, teachers tended to move to schools with better test scores, lower poverty rates, and lower percentages of minority students. The study also found that one-third of the city’s teaching positions turned over between September 1996 and December 1999. (“Philadelphia Study: Teacher Transfers Add to Educational Inequities,” April 18, 2001.)

Federal data also show that half of all new urban teachers leave teaching within five years.

Given that churning, coupled with chronic teacher shortages in many city districts, some say Ms. Kline’s failed transfer request is symptomatic of greater bureaucratic shortcomings.

“The system has to have the flexibility to respond to what seem to be responsible and important staffing requests,” said Shelly Yanoff, the executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, a local advocacy group.

Such flexibility seemed to be missing in Ms. Kline’s case.

Mr. McGriff, the school district spokesman, explained that three main criteria govern voluntary-transfer requests: There must be an opening in the requested school; priority goes to senior teachers; and the school must meet certain staffing ratios by race.

Mr. McGriff said there was no opening at Stanton when Ms. Kline’s request was processed, based on his conversation with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers that represents Ms. Kline. He was unable, however, to verify that explanation with the district’s human resources department.

Mr. Otto, Stanton’s principal, said that he had clearly informed the personnel office that he would have several openings, including two maternity leaves, over the summer of 2000.

While a delay by the pregnant teachers in submitting their notices ultimately may have killed Ms. Kline’s request, neither Mr. Otto nor Ms. Kline was told that at the time, despite numerous queries about why she had been assigned to another school.

Two days before the school year began, Mr. Otto was sent seven first-year teachers, three of whom lacked full-time teaching credentials. Ms. Kline was the only teacher in the district who had requested a transfer to his school.

“I dare say that the list of requests to transfer here amounted to one,” Mr. Otto said. “I had no reason to believe she wouldn’t be here. I mean, we’re not beating away applicants with a stick.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Kline was sent to Finletter Academic Plus School, a site she had not requested. After Stanton, her transfer request listed four other clusters, or sub-regions, as broad options for placement.

She said a union representative had told her to do it that way. Believing the Stanton move was certain, she was told that it was better to list regions she preferred to teach in rather than risk being reassigned to the school she wanted to leave.

Mr. Jordan of the teachers’ union now says that may have been poor advice. If Ms. Kline had listed Stanton and left her other options blank, he said, her request to go to a new school would have been put on hold until an opening arose at Stanton."The district honored the request obligation and doesn’t have to reassign, or we’d be doing transfers all year,” he said.

Besides, Mr. Jordan added, “Finletter kids got the Teacher of the Year, and we love the students of Finletter as much as the kids at Stanton.”

Skills Untapped

Ms. Kline said that she, too, loves her Finletter students, as well as the two apprentice teachers she mentored there. But, she added, not all things are equal.

For example, while 29 percent of Finletter students scored “below basic” on district reading exams in 1999-2000, more than half, or 52 percent of Stanton students, performed below basic.

“Yes, Finletter needs a good teacher. Every child deserves a good teacher,” Ms. Kline said. “But what children need in one school is not what children need in another school.”

In addition, she said, she was not called on to be part of the leadership or staff-training team at Finletter—which went through three principals last year. Mr. Otto, in contrast, said that she would have been called on to help train and support his new teachers at Stanton, as she had in her previous school.

“If the district wasn’t going to take advantage of her experience and do something with it,” he said, “I’m certainly willing to turn it into something special here.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as System Thwarts Teacher’s Bid To Transfer To Needy School

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